The Family Way

Part VIII—Road to Freedom

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: I own none of these characters.

Rating: PG

Summary: Conclusion. As the thirty-day wait progresses, Mal deals as best he can.

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Mal fell back against the mattress, still panting lightly and skin prickling with the residual glow of the long night of passion he'd just enjoyed. River lay beside him, her own body humming with sensation. She turned suddenly sad eyes to look at him.

Feeling her gaze like a physical weight on his skin, Mal opened his eyes to look at her. "Well, now, that's not exactly how I want my woman to look after I make love to her," he said gently.

"Hoarding moments," River said accusingly.

"Shen me?" Mal asked, though he averted his eyes.

You're hoarding memories," River repeated. "Think you're going to lost it all. That memories will be all you're allowed to have."

"No, that ain't the way of it," Mal said, though they both knew it was useless for him to lie to a Reader. He punched his pillow and turned over onto his side, his back to River a signal that the conversation was over.

River molded her body against his back. Wrapping one arm around his midsection, she said nothing, allowing her physical presence to soothe his troubled heart. After a time, Mal took a deep breath and said in a ragged voice, "I've loved a few things in this 'verse, and 'cept for Zoe I've lost all of 'em, 'til you came onto my boat. You gave me somethin' I thought I'd lost, River. You gave me your love, your faith, your hope." His voice cracking with emotion, he added, "You've given me my son. You've made me a rich man, bao bei. Rich in the things that really matter. And I'm more grateful for it than I'll ever be able to say." He paused, taking a shuddering breath. "I ain't sure that I can take the loss of that. Ain't sure I can spend my life in a cell on some penal colony, knowin' that you're in a cell somewhere else just for being with me, knowin' that some stranger's raising our son. So yeah, I was hoarding memories, tryin' to set in my mind every moment I'm spendin' with you, every taste and smell, every sensation we share. If it's all I'm gonna get, I gotta make it last a lifetime."

As he finished speaking, he turned to face her, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "Problem with lovin' somebody is the chance of losing 'em," he whispered.

River looked at him solemnly, struggling to control her own emotions. She knew that Mal had come to the edge of his emotional resilience, torn apart at the thought of what he and his people faced, helpless to prevent the potential devastation. And she was frightened. Since she had crawled out of the cryo-box, screaming in terror in the cargo bay, she had instinctively known that this man would be her rock, her anchor in a sea of wildly raging dangers. But now he needed a rock to hold on to, and she was determined he'd have what he needed from her. Pushing aside her own fears and sorrow, she touched his face gently, concentrating all her mental strength on steadying him. Gazing deeply into his eyes, she lent him the power of her devotion and the strength of her resolve. "You'll never lose me, ai ren," she whispered. "I won't let go."

She leaned forward to kiss the wrinkle from his brow. Trailing soft kisses down his face and neck, she felt some of his tension melt under her ministrations, and more pleasurable emotions come to the fore. "Besides, I thought we weren't going to worry for the next thirty days," she whispered, nibbling at his earlobe and eliciting a small moan.

"Oh yeah, I forgot," Mal said, offering her a small smile as he rolled her over onto her back.

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Tom Bridgman sat at Serenity's table, sharing one of the many meals he'd taken with the crew in the past twenty days. He felt strangely drawn to the band of landlocked travelers, who seemed much more like a family than he would have imagined such a diverse group to be. And if they were a family, there was no doubt who their patriarch was.

Having cleaned his plate, Mal pushed it out of the way, leaning back to enjoy the company. Adam and Anya each claimed a knee, and Mal planted a kiss on the top of both heads, wrapping an arm around each child. Bridgman was struck, as always, by how everyone at the table seemed determined to make each meal last, as they laughed and talked as if they were not each facing potential jail terms.

And though they did not talk about their Captain's fate, Bridgman saw the depth of their concern in little things---the way the Companion's hand trailed along Mal's shoulders when she passed his chair on the way to the sink, or the way Kaylee insisted he have the last of the pie she'd made. Nor did it escape his notice that Zoe often caught Mal's eye, the two sharing a look like two halves of a whole, perfectly in sync. Even the doctor and the mercenary seemed determined to keep his spirits up, Jayne telling raucous jokes and Simon objecting, as if they were some sort of well-known and beloved comedy team.

But the thing that tore most at Bridgman's tender heart was the love he saw between Captain Reynolds and his wife. Very much in love with his own wife, Bridgman could not imagine the agony of being parted from her, the very prospect Mal was facing. Convinced more than ever to do everything within his power to secure his client's release, Bridgman stood to leave.

Setting the children onto the floor, Mal rose to walk him out, needing to speak with him alone for a moment. "You really don't have any idea as to why the judge wants to see us in the morning?" he asked quietly.

"None," Bridgman said. "He left a message at the office, deliberately vague, if you ask me. But regardless, he wants to see us first thing. I'll come for you at 8:00."

"I imagine I'll be right here," Mal said dryly.

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Mal sent River to their bunk early, asking for some time alone with Adam. He lay beside Adam on his little bed, reading the last of the story they'd been working on for several nights. Adam yawned widely, scrubbing his eyes with his fists. Mal closed the book and reached to turn off the lamp beside Adam's bed.

"Stay, Daddy?" Adam asked in the dim glow of the nightlight.

"For awhile," Mal agreed, pulling the cover over both of them.

Adam snuggled into his father's chest. "You're going to see the judge tomorrow?"

"Yes," Mal answered.

"He's nice," Adam said confidently.

Mal looked at his son seriously. "How do you know that?"

Adam frowned, thinking about the question. After a moment, he said, "I don't know. But he is."

Mal chuckled. "Well, that's good to know." He paused, then added, "Know anything else?"

"Mmm hmm," Adam said sleepily.

"What's that?" Mal asked, a little anxious about the answer.

"Know I love you," Adam said, smiling even as his eyelids fluttered shut.

"Love you too, Adam," Mal replied, placing a gentle kiss on the child's forehead.

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Judge Zeng's face was expressionless as Mal was ushered into his chambers. "Good morning, gentlemen," he said, motioning for Mal and Tom to sit down.

"Good morning, Your Honor," Tom replied. As he was about to inquire as to the purpose of the meeting, the judge's door opened again, and a very grim looking man walked in. Mal did not need River's abilities to know that this man was his enemy.

"Mr. Bridgman, I believe you know Mr. Atwater. He will be representing the state in this trial."

Bridgman rose graciously to extend his hand. "I believe we met awhile back, during the Montique case," he said pleasantly.

"Yes," Atwater replied flatly. "That's correct."

Once the tow men were seated, Judge Zeng continued. "I've called this meeting because Mr. Atwater has apprised me of certain circumstances that affect his ability to proceed to trial. Mr. Atwater, if you please," he invited.

Ignoring Mal totally, Atwater turned his attention to Bridgman. "Are you aware, Mr. Bridgman, of any of the process that led to Mr. Reynolds' first arrest?"

"Beyond the fact that the warrant was issued by a Parliament member personally, no."

Atwater nodded impatiently. "Permit me to enlighten you," he said snidely. "The warrant was issued by Senator Ezekiel Holmes."

"The same Senator Holmes who was murdered in the Salisbury prison riots?" Bridgman asked.

"The very same," Atwater replied. "However, strangely enough," he stopped to stare accusingly at Mal. "I have been unable as yet to find a copy of the warrant anywhere."

Bridgman took umbrage at the implication of the rude stare. "I think it's safe to say that my client, having been incarcerated since this process began, had nothing to do with the disappearance of the warrant."

Continuing as if he had not heard, Atwater said, "Senator Holmes' office has been unable to produce any paperwork pertaining to Mr. Reynolds so far, but they are still searching their records."

Judge Zeng interrupted. "What about the person or persons who turned Mr. Reynolds in? Perhaps they have at least a copy of the warrant, though I suppose they would not have all the supporting documentation you would need."

"Reynolds was arrested by a Lt. Womack of the Silverhold Colonies. As luck would have it," Atwater looked suspiciously at Mal again. "Lt. Womack was killed in a bar in Santo under rather mysterious circumstances soon after the arrest."

Mal hid his surprise, as Bridgman said, "It would seem to me then, Mr. Atwater, that you are at a loss as to evidence that would support a public trial."

"I have every belief that the evidence will surface," Atwater said coldly. "Due to the strange circumstances, I have requested of Judge Zeng an extension of the deadline to produce evidence."

Judge Zeng looked intently at all three men. "That's why I called this informal meeting," he said. "I wished to hear the opinions of everyone involved. Mr. Atwater has gone to great pains to convince me of the validity of his request. What do you have to say, Mr. Bridgman?"

"I find it completely unconscionable that such a thing would even be under consideration. Not only has the state imprisoned this man once without due process, but he's been subjected to the cruelest of abuses while an inmate at a government facility. Add to that the fact that he and his entire crew have been detained here for the past twenty-three days, and you can see what a travesty of justice it would be to hold him any longer, while the State tries to cobble together what is apparently phantom evidence. I strongly object, Your Honor."

Judge Zeng nodded. "So noted." Turning his attention to Mal, he asked, "Mr. Reynolds, what do you say about all of this?"

Mal thought carefully, fully aware that his next words might mean freedom or a lifetime of incarceration for his crew. "Truth to tell, Your Honor, the Alliance has been trying to kill me and mine since the war, so I suppose it's nothing new. But since I've been in custody here, I've seen that there are still people interested in justice, people who aren't hellbent for a man's blood." He looked steadily at Zeng. "So, I'm gonna have to trust that your decision will be the right one. I conjure that's all a man can hope for."

The sincerity of his words hung in the air for several minutes, as Zeng sat contemplating his decision. Finally, clearing his throat, he said, "Mr. Atwater, according to my reckoning, you still have seven days to find your evidence. I'd suggest you go about it as quickly as possible. There will be no extension."

"But, Your Honor," Atwater began.

Zeng held his hand up to forestall further discussion. "That is all."

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Bridgman walked with Mal back to Serenity. "I suppose we dodged a bullet back there," he said.

"Guess so," Mal answered soberly. "So, if he doesn't find what he's looking for in the next seven days…"

"You'll be free to go," Bridgman confirmed.

They walked silently until they reached the ship. Shaking Bridgman's hand at the door as the guard re-keyed his ankle band, Mal said, "Seven days is a gorram long time, I'm thinkin'."

"Maybe not," Bridgman said, clasping Mal's hand in both of his own.

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As time often does in stressful situations, it appeared to Mal that the days passed at an uneven pace. The moments he spent with his family sped by all too quickly, while his moments alone dragged out in seemingly endless loops of anxiety. Bridgman checked in every day, giving what information he could about the status of Atwater's investigation, until finally the day arrived to convene once again in Judge Zeng's chambers.

Pulse pounding in his ears, Mal sat beside his advocate, facing Judge Zeng. Atwater sat on Bridgman's other side, holding a sheaf of papers in his hand which looked rather ominous to Mal. After greeting the three men, Zeng turned to Atwater. "Well, Mr. Atwater, it would seem that you have reached the deadline for discovery. Do you have something to present?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Atwater said, laying the stack of papers on Zeng's desk.

"And these are…?" Zeng prompted.

"These are signed affidavits from former staff members of Senator Holmes' office detailing a burglary that occurred recently. The staff has every reason to believe that the original warrant and supporting documentation were stolen at that time. There are also sworn statements from several staffers who had seen these same documents as recently as two months ago."

"Your Honor," Bridgman said, standing up. "I must object. Surely the court will not accept such alleged 'evidence'. The freedom of several people is at stake here, and the life of one man. Are we to base such a weighty decision on the vague recollections and suppositions of the Senator's former staff?"

"The trial's not started yet, Mr. Bridgman. Sit down," the judge said calmly. Reaching for the first paper on the stack, he pulled reading glasses from his desk and began to read. Silence settled on the room as he read, the only sound the faint rustle of papers as he worked his way through the stack. Mal stared ahead numbly, unwilling to watch the expression on Zeng's face as the stack got lower and lower.

Two hours later, the judge finished the last page and took off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Mr. Atwater, while these statements make for interesting reading, I find nothing in them that would compel a jury to convict this man. So, unless you have something else to substantiate these reports, I am going to release Mr. Reynolds and his crew with my sincerest apologies for wasting their time."

Atwater flushed bright red, but said, "I have nothing further at this time."

Zeng turned his attention to Mal. "Mr. Reynolds, you are free to go. You understand, however, that should Mr. Atwater find his elusive evidence, there will be a new warrant issued for your arrest."

"Yes, Your Honor, I understand," Mal answered, hoping the judge could hear the respect and gratitude in his voice.

Judge Zeng smiled, having heard both. "It is my sincere hope that I never see you again, Mr. Reynolds," he said. Motioning to the guards, he said, "Release Mr. Reynolds at once."

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Mal sat on Serenity's bridge, the hum of the engine like a balm to his soul. Three hours out of Boros and heading for parts unknown, he gazed at the stars and thought about how very much his life had changed. The hard, embittered man who had walked out of Serenity Valley with no one but Zoe had accumulated a family of people who cared for him as much as he cared for them. And though he had known that fact for awhile, he could see now that he had also developed other relationships with people beyond his ship. People like Tom Bridgman, who had fought so tirelessly in his behalf, and Peter, who had originally sent the man to help him.

Thinking of Peter, Mal smiled. No sooner than Serenity had broken atmo had he received a private wave from the young man, congratulating him on his release. Offering his sincere thanks for Peter's help, Mal had been further indebted by Peter's assertion that the evidence Senator Holmes had possessed would never be found.

"And you know this how, exactly?' Mal had asked.

Peter's face had broken out in that impish grin that reminded Mal of River. "Let's just say I've been honing my lock smithing skills, and my wife is fond of matches," he'd said.

Mal chuckled. "Then I'd take it as a kindness if you'd thank her as well," he'd said.

"Will do, Captain. Happy flying to you," Peter had said, cutting the transmission.

Still smiling at the memory, Mal heard River's quiet steps behind him. Resting her hand on his shoulder, River placed a soft kiss on his cheek. Mal covered her hand with his own. "It's a beautiful sight, isn't it, darlin'?" he said, looking back out into the Black.

"That it is," she said simply, as Serenity took them forward into their future.

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Author's Note: So ends another tale of Serenity's crew. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. As always, I thank you for reading, and especially appreciate those steadfast souls who've taken the extra moment to leave feedback. If writing is my bread, your kind words have been the butter. Many thanks!